For African American and Latinos, there are two pandemics. One, viral. The other, academic. In communities of color, students are being attacked on two fronts. Just as African American and Latino populations are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 as compared to Whites and Asians, the former set lacks sustained support and advocacy in reading and math, an inequity of American Education long predating the pandemic.
I am an African American educator who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. I have been teaching for more than 15 years. I instruct middle school students, primarily African American and Latino children between the ages of 11 and 14, on the intricacies of the English language. It’s a career that I love because I truly believe that knowledge is power.
As of November 6, 2020, Boston’s “seven-day positive test rate was 7.2% for the week ending on Oct. 31, down slightly from 8% the week before. There is still a 10% positive test rate in Dorchester, Mattapan and East Boston.” (wbur.com)
The virus rages in the Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston, where most of our students attend school. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, our local economy suffered under COVID–19 restrictions and I saw so many families of color struggling to make ends meet. Working class families lost income due to layoffs, couldn’t find work due to lack of skills and access, and are on the verge of eviction from their homes. Through the pandemic, many families have looked to schools for much more than education. They need food, clothing, and referral to community assistance resources.
Typically, five days out of the week, ten months out of the year, we read, we write, we think critically in a live lecture classroom format. In September, by mandate, Boston teachers headed to schools and delivered online instruction, wearing our masks and opening windows. We create Zoom classes. We use props, images, and videos to engage our students. One colleague uses her pet iguanas. Another shares stories of her family growing up in the Caribbean. We grade assignments and chase after students for missing work. We send email to parents sharing academic updates.
As the classroom has shifted to what could become a permanent virtual space, I observe frustrations in many of my students who experience constant glitches, spotty internet, and Zoom intrusions on laptops provided by the district. The rough transition to online classes carried some students away to a kind of early vacation in the interweb of video games, Netflix, Tik Tok, and YouTube, disconnected from teachers. Students became anxious and confused. We’ve been able to reconnect with some students, but we’ve lost many more to internet distractions.
Boston’s school achievement gap remains wide along racial lines. Only “24% of Black students and 26% of Latino students scored above grade-level proficiency in the reading assessment of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System,” according to recent MCAS data. These disruptions have exacerbated the historic opportunity gap primarily affecting Boston’s African American and Latino children.
Due to local budget cuts and the workings of administrators, teachers are juggling a variety of grade levels. Our workloads extend into the evening hours. I’m often working past midnight, preparing for the next day’s classes. Teachers are tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. Many are people of color.
Systemic racism drives a number of deficiencies when it comes to management of the pandemic. In mid-November, the administration “detailed an expectation that schools across the state should have students attending in-person learning and that most of the 351 cities and towns should strive to have students in classrooms full-time.” (MSN.com) Under the best of circumstances, older school buildings in our predominantly black and brown neighborhoods were inadequately ventilated. To mitigate risks of infection, the district provided box fans with instruction to place them inside of open window frames, but winters in Boston can be brutally cold. Under these conditions, already vulnerable students and staff of color may become subject to greater risk of viral exposure. This latest display of disregard could be the most devastating.
When I consider the welfare of my student families of color, the position of the administration coupled with Republican Governor Charles Baker’s “just get it done” approach, it feels like a dismissal of the realities of COVID-19. My biggest worry beyond the virus, is how the pandemic will impact students of color everywhere in years to come. I want students to reach their creative potential, but school administrators’ duty of care is a prerequisite to student achievement.
The American educational system is based on traditions of theory and practice that don’t work. In Blind Spots: Why Students Fail and the Science That Can Save Them, Kimberly Berens, Ph.D. writes “Traditions don’t exist because they work. They exist because people believe in them and, more important, because it’s just how we’ve always done things.” This describes the American educational system – a system that was not designed for children of color or working-class families.
‘Blind Spots’ offers a simple idea that can make a positive difference for under-represented students of color, but would require a societal shift in this country. Berens says pragmatism makes it possible to let go of a “profoundly ineffective and inefficient system guided by ideology rather than science,” and closely held beliefs that conflict with the greater good.
Another necessary societal shift, reparations. Systemic racism in America plagues every facet of life for African Americans and other people of color, especially in education, health care, and economic opportunities. Reparations for the descendants of those enslaved through generations of African chattel slavery, the victims of Jim Crow, and maligned citizens affected by redlining in urban communities will finally bring black people the table, where everyone deserves a seat, where everyone deserves to be heard.
When Boston Schools begin to regard our children as people, their needs and well-being, their interests as individuals, we’ll be the prototype of a society shifted towards education for all children, and a model for the nation.
SHIRLEY JONES-LUKE is an educator and writer in Boston, Massachusetts, focused on educational advocacy, policy, and literacy. Luke believes in educational rights for all children and that Black lives matter. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.